By Amy Caylor
I’ve always adored fantasy. I’m fascinated with princesses in castles and knights battling dragons. But I especially love magic (and yes, Christians can write about it with discretion). To live in a world where books have self-turning pages and torn clothes can be mended with a gesture would be delightful.
I’m particularly drawn to unique magic systems. Over the years, I’ve observed stories where magic was thrown in as a component of the genre, and others where magic was purposefully included. Brandon Sanderson’s laws of magic have helped me identify two factors that set apart a magic system or any sort of extraordinary powers/abilities: costs and limitations. With these in mind, you can develop a distinct magic system and enhance your story.
Establishing the Cost for Using Magic
Characters should experience consequences for exercising their abilities. Not all magic systems have drawbacks, and when they do, it’s typically energy—such as in the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini. After a magician casts a spell, he feels tired. I can count on one hand the books I’ve read that had a downside to magic besides energy. Thus, energy-cost systems will likely be familiar to readers, which may be what you seek, but unusual disadvantages to magic will make your world more interesting to visit.
Costs can range from high (deformation) to low (fatigue) and everything in between (pain). The severity depends on how widely you want the characters to harness magic. A high cost means that few will use magic, except in extreme circumstances. If the story is based in a culture that has banned magic, using it openly could result in a character being burned at the stake. Characters will have to decide whether magic is worth the repercussions. In stories with lower costs, magic will be commonplace and characters have greater freedom to experiment with their powers.
In addition to physical and societal risks, some magic consumes resources. If these materials are rare and expensive, replenishing the supply may be difficult, causing characters to ration spells. In Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, characters acquired powers by swallowing metals. Some metals were hard to find, so the powers obtained from them were exercised sparingly. The need to track down these rare metals propelled and deepened the plot.
Costs can be woven into your story’s theme. If wielding magic will inflict harm upon someone else, that might pose a moral dilemma for your character. Perhaps an unbreakable superhero (like Superman) learns that another person will be injured every time he escapes from a battle unscathed. Does he continue fighting even if another person is punished? Conversely, a villain might be unconcerned about hurting someone to gain power for a spell.
Some magic systems have no costs. In the Harry Potter series, users reap no consequences for casting a spell. But a cost demonstrates that a character’s ability is valuable and shouldn’t be taken lightly. If you choose not to have a cost, then implementing strong limitations becomes even more important.
Setting Limitations for Your Magic System
Limitations are my favorite way to add a twist to a magic system. They define it and give it rules to follow. Without restrictions, your characters could solve challenges with a snap of their fingers, turning the villain into a frog. With powers like that, nothing could prevent them from reaching their goal. No opposition, no conflict. No conflict, no story.
The more limitations, the better. They force you, and your characters, to be innovative while making your magic system more original.
Suppose your character can control fire but not ignite it (like Pyro from the X-men), so he has to keep a lighter handy. Maybe he can control fire but also get burned. Now a sense of danger surrounds his power. Or what if he can only control fire when he is angry? Then his emotions are directly tied to the plot, in addition to the havoc he might wreak with his fury.
Be creative. Contrive situations where characters can or can’t utilize their powers. Take an existing limitation and narrow it further. For example, needing to touch an object to manipulate it is good, but having to nudge it with an elbow will multiply problems and conflict—plus, it’s more fun. Just be sure the limitation integrates naturally with your setting.
Remember to consider how the limitation will affect your story world. If a certain item is resistant to magic, everyone might carry it to protect themselves. Or there might be a combative market for the item, because the rich are hoarding it. Limitations should impact your entire story world and make it memorable.
The more limits you institute, the more you clarify the edges of your magic system, and the less mystical it will seem. In many (maybe even most) cases, this is beneficial. Too many stories have vague magic systems. But with others, especially epic fantasies, writers intentionally shroud magic in mystery, such as Lord of the Rings.
Be warned: the more enigmatic the magic system, the less leeway you have. Readers don’t want to be worried for the characters, only to discover that someone has a convenient spell to save them. Or the opposite could occur: readers might assume someone has powers that could aid the characters and are wondering why it hasn’t been revealed. But if readers know the character’s limits, the tension intensifies. Rules increase the author’s aptitude at administering magic to repair problems without annoying readers, because solutions aren’t being pulled out of thin air.
Costs and limitations solidify magic. The right kinds make a story unique. Using them correctly can produce a fantasy world that readers will long to return to again and again.
Amy has loved reading ever since she learned how. When she was younger, she would hide her books under the couch, in the bathroom cabinet, or behind her back so she was always ready to sneak in a paragraph or two if she got the chance. When she got older, this transitioned to a love for writing. Now you can find her brainstorming ideas with her best friend, babysitting her seven younger siblings, doing her schoolwork on the computer (yay homeschooling!), and, of course, it’s likely you’ll find her reading. Because, although she’s stopped hiding books around the house, she still loves stories.